Ecuador’s most populous city and the second highest world capital (9,350′ AMSL), Quito rests on the slope of Pichincha volcano, one of the Andes’ active stratovolcanoes. At the heart of the sprawling metropolis sits Quito’s historic Old Town, which was named one of UNESCO’s first World Heritage culture sites in 1978. The Old Town is beautiful and has tons of character, including 500-year-old buildings and churches, and incredibly steep, cobblestone streets. We spent a few hours wandering around the bustling center, enjoying our first glimpses of the immaculately-preserved, centuries-old Latin American architecture:
PALACIO DE GOBIERNO
The seat of the Ecuadorian presidency sits at the head of the Plaza Grande. The original building dates back to 1650, though the complex burned downed in 1920 (it was quickly rebuilt). During our day in the city, the Palacio was closed, as the President was staying there, but it was still nice to get a glimpse of the site.
IGLESIA Y CONVENTO DE SAN FRANCISCO
Tucked back off the Plaza Independencia (Plaza Grande), San Francisco is a beautiful convent built in the 1500s. At the request of a Spanish king, hand-painted frescos adorning the dome of a courtyard hallway were covered in white paint, as it was believed this would ward off the Bubonic Plague and evil spirits. The images are currently being restored. Standing under this same dome, two people in opposite corners can whisper and the sound travels up and around the dome to the other person. Monks used to communicate this way if they were forbidden to speak. The adjacent courtyard still has the original designs sculpted in the garden’s shrubs. Inside the convent, enormous, domed ceilings are decorated with detailed, painted wooden inlays that took anonymous workers generations to complete. Large organs flank both sides of the prayer area, and there is a painting of the San Francisco family tree – the largest painting in Ecuador.
Unfinished after hundreds of years, legend says that when the Basilica is completed, it will be the beginning of the end of the world. Inside, there are beautiful stained-glass windows, and intricate vaulted ceilings. On the back wall facing the altar, a heart-shaped window and cross were carved into the stone. Standing at the altar, the virgin atop el Panecillo can be seen through the heart. On the exterior, instead of gargoyles, architects used local animals to adorn the church (including lizards, turtles, anteaters and frigate birds).
IGLESIA DE LA COMPAÑIA DE JESÚS
One of Quito’s most grand and most recognized churches is ‘La Compañia,’ just one block southwest of the Plaza Grande. Near the end of the 1500s, the first group of Jesuit priests arrived in the city, with the ambition of building a church and monastery at the heart of the city. Construction on the church eventually began in 1605, and was not completed until 1765 – 160 years later. La Compañia is considered one of South America’s best examples of Spanish Baroque architecture, with intricate, hand-carved volcanic stone (andesite) adorning the exterior. The cathedral’s ornate style continues in the interior, with decorative wood carvings and a gilded central nave swathed in delicate gold leaf (note: no photography is allowed inside the church).
The winged, virgin statue of Quito stands atop this solitary hill [el panecillo translates to “little bread loaf”], overlooking the entire city. From atop the hill, there are sweeping panoramas of Quito, Pichincha Volcano, and the surrounding Andes.
MITAD DEL MUNDO
After touring the city, it was off to Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World), about sixteen miles north of Quito where the Equator is located. The precise location of Earth’s equatorial center seems to be hotly debated – there’s a large, stone monument that was initially erected in a valley amongst the Andes as well as a second location, Intiñan, about 300 meters north. GPS had suggested that the stone landmark was ~240 meters off from the “true Equator,” hence the establishment of Intiñan, though many now suggest that the second site is also incorrect. Geographic precision aside, we had a photo taken on a red line at/near 00°00’00” with a kitschy little sign labeled as such. Additionally, we took photos of our [scientifically-irrelevant, but oddly cute] “experiment” of balancing an egg on a nail while standing at the center of the Earth.
The Intiñan Solar Museum was tucked away here, and showcased some of the Amazonian tribes that lived in equatorial Ecuador. One tribe, the Jivaro, is infamous for shrinking human heads. The Jivaro believed that one’s soul was kept in the head, and that by shrinking it they could control the person’s spirit. This was originally performed on the Jivaro’s enemies to prevent vengeance. Eventually, the Jivaro also shrank the heads of deceased relatives so that they could keep a part of them forever. The skulls were shrunk by separating the skin and hair from the cranial bones, stitching the eyes and mouth shut, and boiling with salts and herbs, the resulting “tsantsa” being about the size of a person’s fist. This practice continued until the 1920s, and tribe members still do this with monkey heads to preserve tradition.
A second tribe, the Caraque, was quite brutal in regards to their burial practices. If a chief died, his family was buried alive with him, to accompany him to the afterlife. The living were drugged with a hallucinogen from a cactus plant to ease the suffering. All the bodies were then placed in fetal position in small, clay jars with lids. Evidence in some tombs showed claw marks where people had tried to dig out. Also on display was a hut that has been standing in original form for ~150 years. The huts were made from bark and palm leaves, and the walls filled with mud and dung for weather-proofing. Tribes constructed a separate kitchen hut to avoid lung problems, as there was no chimney for smoke evacuation. As the soot rose to the ceiling, it also served to waterproof the roof.
After our busy day of exploring, we decided to try some local fare. Outside the restaurant we were greeted by enormous bouquets of fragrant Ecuadorian roses. During dinner, Stephan thoroughly enjoyed his fritada de cerdo and also decided to give the ceviche de pulpo (raw octopus stew) a whirl (although this dish was far less of a palate pleaser). As for me – I would highly recommend the alfajores, a traditional shortbread sandwich cookie with a dulce de leche filling. We both agreed that the fresh juice bar was amazing – with a dozen or so exotic juices to choose from, I could have sat there all day!